With injuries to Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez both of whom will serve time on the DL, the Marlins had two vacancies in their rotation to fill. On Monday, we found out who will serve the first one when the Fish called up Jose Urena from AAA. He will make his first start on Tuesday night.
Urena spent time with the Marlins to begin the year but only got in to two games, both as a reliever before being sent back to the minors. With Latos (and his troublesome knee) and Alvarez (with his nagging shoulder issues) both out for what looks to be an extended period, Urena will get his first real look as a major leaguer rather than just warming the bench. Urena’s call-up and first real shot in a Marlins’ uniform is the culmination of a childhood dream as well as a lot of hard work which allowed him to go from international signee at 17 years old to MLB starter in just five years’ time.
Urena is a native of the Dominican Repubic, a country rich in the tradition of starting their children as soon as they can grip a baseball. Accordingly, it is no shock that his playing career is already five years old even though he is just 23. Urena’s professional playing career began in 2009 when he was still a teenager after he signed with the Marlins for $52K (not a bad payday for a 17-year-old). After getting accustomed to facing professional hitters in his rookie year, Urena posted impressive numbers in 2010, posting a 2.61 ERA a team high 66 Ks, a minuscule walk total (7) and a team leading K/BB (9.43). In 2011, Urena made the move to the United States to play for the short season Jamestown Jammers. Again, it was a bit of a transitionary period for him as he got adjusted to a new set of rules and style of ball played in America. However, he was still able to hold down respectable numbers including 48 strikeouts, third on the team. In 2012, Urena got promoted to single A Greensboro for his first full season. It was here where he first started to attract the attention of scouts. The attention was well warranted. Urena finished the season with numbers that rivaled the likes of Jose Fernandez and Andrew Heaney. In 27 games (22 starts), he posted a 9-6 record with a 3.38 ERA. He struck out 101 batters in his 138.1 IP or an average of about 7 per game. His 1.9 BB/9 ranked third on the team ahead of Fernandez. He did so on the backs of a great fastball/changeup combo, a developing slider, and well above average control for a 20-year-old getting accustomed not only to baseball but also life in the USA.
2013 greeted Urena with another jump in level, this time to A+ Jupiter. He greeted the promotion by pitching more innings (149.2), totalling more Ks (107), posting the same amount of walks (29), and, for the first time in his American baseball career, allowed less hits (155) than IP. His ERA slightly rose but his FIP improved from 3.99 to 3.21. Urena’s stuff continued to improve. The flatness that his fastball sometimes had during his first few seasons seemed to disappear and the velocity was well maintained at 95-96 with the ability to reach 98-99. The mix in changeup maintained its good life and his work-in-progress slider continued to improve with more tilt thanks to better arm action.
Urena continued to march his way through the Marlins’ system in 2014 with another promotion and another good showing, this time with AA Jacksonville. Again, Urena’s durable young frame allowed him to improve upon his totals in IP (162) and Ks. Outstandingly, for a third straight year, Urena walked just 29 hitters, proving his command had turned the corner. His 4.17 K/BB was a career high and led all Suns’ pitchers with at least 50 IP. His 121 Ks blew away the rest of the competiton on the team and his 3.33 ERA was the lowest he had posted since his days in the Dominican Republic. With his best season to date, Urena found himself climbing in to the top 10 best organizational prospects. Urena proved he deserved yet another call-up, his fourth in four years, by finishing the season with a 2.09 ERA and a 52/10 K/BB over his final ten starts while never allowing an XBH in any of them.
In his first 37.1 IP this season, Urena has proven that he is major league ready. With his fastball consistently sitting at 96, his changeup darting outside away from hitters, and a slider that has become a plus pitch, Urena has outperformed the likes of Justin Nicolino, who was always ranked above him on top prospect boards on their way up, to become the Zephyr most deserving of getting the call. Not only does Urena lead his team’s rotation in a pluthera of categories including ERA, WHIP, K/9 and fewest hits allowed, his 1.21 ERA leads the entire Pacific Coast League.
So what can you expect to see with Urena on the hill? You can expect to see a tall lanky righty who works with confidence and remembers his roots. Taking after his on-again-off-again teammate Jose Fernandez who came from a similar beginning, very seldom in his starts will you see Urena without a smile on his face. His now fully developed arsenal includes a high-90s fastball usually sitting in the 95-97 MPH area with good movement but with the ability to ramp up as high as 99. His mix-in changeup which he throws just as variably as the heat, softens up to the lower end of the 90 MPH spectrum. He will also mix in the occasional curveball when ahead in counts. By far Urena’s best secondary pitch though is the slider that he has been working on since his days in single A. It is thanks to this pitch that starts well outside and tails back over the plate with high 80s velo that has allowed the scouts that pegged him as a high leverage reliever wrong and wind up starting today’s game for the Marlins.
The bottom line: Overall, Urena is a kid with a great backstory that is proof that from maturity, hard work and confidence in yourself can take you as far as you want to go in life. When he takes the mound tonight, he will undoubtedly have the eyes of not only the baseball scouting world including the Marlins’ front office but also of his home nation upon him. However, Urena has never been phased by pressure. Rather, he has embraced it. If his reputation of rising up to any challenge continues to show itself, Urena could become a fixture in the Marlins’ rotation for not only the rest of the year but for the foreseeable future.